By Joel van der Veen
The late musician Frank Zappa — well-known for his outspoken views on religion, politics and everything else — was once quoted as follows: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”
Or maybe it was Elvis Costello. The quote has also been attributed to Steve Martin, Laurie Anderson and Martin Mull.
No matter who said it — and perhaps none of them really did — the line perfectly sums up a commonly-held attitude towards critics.
Music is an art form that stands by itself, so what gives a record reviewer — even one who’s carefully listened to thousands of albums — the authority to say that one record is good while another is not?
It’s a fair question. Still, someone must stand up in defence of the critics, who face a rather challenging task. After all, it’s often hard to write something interesting about a piece of music while remaining reasonably objective.
Many fall into the trap of smug cynicism — hilariously lampooned in This Is Spinal Tap, in which a critic suggests an unprintable substitute title for an album named Shark Sandwich.
Robert Christgau of The Village Voice also comes to mind. His “Consumer Guide” turned record reviewing into a dull, mechanical process through which albums were dismissed with a letter grade, a turkey symbol or a bomb graphic.
I’ve attempted the craft a couple of times. In high school I wrote a few pieces for our student paper, dissing the Arctic Monkeys and lavishing praise upon Franz Ferdinand. I tried it again in Davidson, writing an occasional column called “The Milk Crate,” to little or no acclaim.
The best critics, I have found, are those who weave their own experiences and reactions into their writing, as Lester Bangs did with Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
In a piece written 11 years after that album’s release, Bangs described what it had meant during a bleak period in his life, how he had sensed in it “a redemptive element in the blackness, ultimate compassion for the suffering of others, and a swath of pure beauty and mystical awe.”
I don’t think I could analyze albums day in and day out, but I’d love to write about specific records that have touched me personally, like how The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds spoke to me as a lovelorn, teenage wussbag, or how Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs awakened a sense of nostalgia for my childhood years.
It’s hard enough for me to define my own taste, since it changes over time. So rather than tell you what to like, I’d prefer to share what the music meant to me on a personal level.
That’s music writing in its simplest and purest form. Even Frank Zappa would have to agree with that.